Big Data: On the Hunt for Bigfoot

While some scientists and researchers use big data to discover new energy sources or improve the lives of people around the world, others are turning to big data for, shall we say, rather unconventional reasons.

Like trying to track down Sasquatch, aka Bigfoot.

Josh Stevens, a PhD candidate at Penn State University, has amassed 92 years worth of data on Bigfoot – including 3,313 sightings across North America – and compared that information to the population growth in those areas.

Stevens’ research interests include GIScience, a system aimed at capturing, storing, manipulating, analyzing, managing, and presenting all types of geographical data, as well as visualization related to human-computer interaction and big data.

The big data Stevens is using for his Bigfoot quest comes from the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO), a scientific research organization that investigates the mystery of Bigfoot. Founded in 1995, the BFRO is a virtual community of scientists, journalists, and specialists from diverse backgrounds.

After crawling the BFRO’s data and converting it to a more convenient format, Stevens mapped and graphed all 3,313 sightings that were reported from 1921 to 2013.

Stevens’ data analysis indicates that Bigfoot has been seen mainly in the western part of the United States, and in the Pacific Northwest in particular. However, people have also claimed to have seen him (her?) in Florida as well as on the Appalachian Trail.

In North America, people have speculated about the existence of Bigfoot for more than 400 years, according to the BFRO. And they’ve been finding, photographing, and casting sets of very large tracks that resemble human tracks in remote areas for over 70 years.

Although the first photograph of a footprint was taken in 1951, news of Bigfoot hit mainstream media big (pun intended) in 1967 when two men claimed to have filmed a Sasquatch walking in northern California.

Most people believe that the legend of Bigfoot is just that – legend. But the BFRO counters that the data suggests the presence of a primate that exists in areas with low population densities – a creature that is “astonishingly adept at avoiding human contact through a process of natural selection.”

So you would expect sightings to be the most frequent in areas where there are a lot of people, Stevens notes. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, Stevens says after careful analysis of reported sightings.

“But a bivariate view of the data show a very different story,” he says. “There are distinct regions where sightings are incredibly common, despite a very sparse population.”

On the other hand, he says Sasquatch sightings are exceedingly rare in some of the most densely populated areas.

“The desire to find, or think you saw, Bigfoot might be especially high if you’ve heard tales of giant, ape-like creatures calling the place you’re in home,” Stevens notes. “A combination of environment and legend likely combine to at least put weary outdoorsmen on the lookout.”

However, he adds that a potential flaw exists in that logic because the population data in the study is based on the US Census, while the report data doesn’t differentiate between sightings that were reported by residents of a particular location and sightings reported by people just visiting that area.

He also notes that there’s some bias inherent in the report data because the sightings are tied to the nearest city rather that exact geopositioning coordinates.

“Would you really log a GPS reading while staring squatch in the eye?” he asks. “That can skew the data in the direction of populated areas, when the actual sightings could be miles away.”

As for Stevens, he’s still not quite ready to admit these big, hairy guys/gals really exist.

“But if respectable folks like Survivorman Les Stroud and primatologist Jane Goodall believe there’s something more to the myth, I think it’s at least worth putting on the map,” he says.

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Linda Rosencrance
Spotfire Blogging Team